Trump(‘s America) in the Mirror — Colin Eckstein


When the young child looks in the mirror, says Lacan, they encounter an idealized version of themselves (an “ideal-I”) which, in contrast to their fractured self-experience, is fully and impressively integrated. Is this not, asks psychoanalyst Justin A. Frank, comparable to Donald Trump’s experience of watching reruns of The Apprentice (or, for that matter, Fox News coverage of presidential briefings) in the Oval Office? [1] Trump, a bankrupt businessman and incompetent politician, spends his evenings watching a more successful version of himself on television. “Fake news!” is unconsciously self-referential, and Trump’s frequent pleas to “Believe me!” should be taken literally. “When he [Trump] designated himself as a ‘stable genius,’” says Žižek, “we should read this as a direct reversal of the truth.” [2]

Yet, Žižek continues, Trump is not the disease: “he is a symptom, an effect of what is wrong with the establishment.” [3] When the so-called political mainstream expresses dismay at Trump’s public statements, it is with their brutish formulation (“public”) rather than their content (“statements”). And I am not so sure, as Žižek seems to be, that even this horror is genuine. As the philosopher Peter Rollins duly points out, the popular anti-Trump slogan, “Love Trumps Hate,” has two principal readings: first, the conscious or literal reading (“love is better than hate; Trump represents hatred and we oppose him in this”) and second, the unconscious or disavowed reading (“we love Trump’s hate; Trump’s hatred somehow enlivens or enriches our political movement”). [4] Mainstream American politics is, in short, libidinally invested in Trump’s blatant racism, sexism, classism, etc.

When a fragmented, politically partisan mainstream looks in the mirror, it sees Trump (its “ideal-I”). It is enamored with the unapologetic, uninhibited will that lashes out indiscriminately at opposition. Trump is not driven by partisan ideology; he was a Democrat practically up until he ran for president as a Republican. He stands, instead, for business, for capitalism, for golden toilets and sheer excess. He stands for billionaire bailouts and an utter lack of accountability (see, for example, his refusal to release his tax returns). The news media often speculates that America is embarrassed of its president’s performance on the so-called “world stage,” but I beg to differ. When Trump pushes past the president of Montenegro at the NATO summit (so that he might be at the front of a “class photo”), his supporters cheer. And while his ostensible detractors groan, it’s with a certain phallic pleasure.

1. Justin Frank, Trump on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President, 129.

2. Slavoj Žižek, “Democratic left, not liberal establishment, can defeat Trump.”

3. Ibid.

4. Peter Rollins, “Love Trumps Hate: On Peterson, Cultural Marxism, and Postmodernism.”

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